The State of Poverty, USA
by Fr. John Rausch
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has launched an educational program about poverty in the USA. The federal government counts 32.3 million poor people in America with 12.1 million children among them. Lumped together in one place, Poverty, USA, would rank as the second largest state in the union.
|Curiously, CCHD’s reminder about
poverty comes after a glowing economic report by the government. The 1999
data released by the U.S. Census Bureau reported that poverty fell to
11.8%, the lowest level since 1979. In fact, the report underscored the
increase of 5.4% in 1999 household income for the poorest 20% of the
population, while income for the richest 20% rose only 3.9%. In percentage
terms the poor appear to be gaining. However, in average dollars those
percentages still show a huge disparity. That 5.4% increase translates to
just $513 more each year for the poor, while the top 20% gain
$5,055--nearly ten times the poorest group.
The fastest growing segments among the poor go to work each day, but don’t earn enough to stay above the poverty line. The 7.2 million working poor clean offices and fry hamburgers. They run cash registers and stock shelves. The welfare reform of 1996 dramatically reduced the roles by moving about 60% of the parents into the workplace, but many times into low wage jobs with limited opportunities for advancement. The median hourly wage of employed former recipients is $6.61. The American dream remains little more than a sleepless night for breadwinners who worry about paying escalating utility bills and providing the basic necessities of life.
Education, experience and skills remain the marks for economic success. The other America, those on the bottom, face a steep climb out of poverty because they lack education and abilities, plus many times suffer discrimination and other social barriers. Conventional wisdom agrees that the most employable have already left welfare leaving on the roles the most challenged. Recent studies of current welfare recipients show 25% reporting poor general health and 35% reporting poor mental health. Approximately one-quarter have an IQ of less than 80, and between one-quarter and one-third have learning disabilities. The 1996 welfare changes never addressed the situation of people with multiple barriers to work.
Because welfare programs view benefits as temporary, people leaving welfare without skills have few alternatives. Karen, an Appalachian woman in her early thirties, looks ten years older because of poor nutrition and health habits from her life in poverty. When she speaks, her mouth reveals wide gaps from missing teeth. Her low IQ leaves her functionally illiterate. With a past-due electric bill of $245 she sought help from the Church for part of the bill. She paid the first $100 herself by digging worms in the creek and selling them for $8 a quart.
The Church responds to the needs of the poor because Christ’s Gospel mandates service to the least. In serving the poor the Church offers a prophetic witness about human dignity and everyone’s right to participate in community.
When welfare legislation is debated again next year, the Church will focus on addressing poverty and not simply reducing welfare numbers. Justice demands adequate wages with benefits to keep full-time workers from living in poverty and opportunities for children to receive quality care in or outside the home. Compassion begs creative ways to tackle the problems of people with multiple barriers to work. In a just society Poverty, USA, would not exist, nor would anyone be forced to dig worms.
Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches at the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center, Berea, Ky. His column appears monthly in many Catholic journals and in ours courtesy of the Friends of the Good News. Join the Friends of the Good News and help spread the Gospel.